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Jewish Christians (sometimes called also "Hebrew Christians" or "Christian Jews") is a term with two meanings, a historical one and a contemporary one.

The historical term refers to Early Christians of or attracted to Jewish culture. This concept deals with the relation between the traditional ethnic religious beliefs and practices of Judaism (including Jewish proselytes) and the then-emergent universal religious concepts of Hellenistic Judaism and then Christianity.

The contemporary concept simply refers to individuals of certain Jewish ancestry or heritage, who is an adherent of some form of Christianity and not Judaism. This includes "converts" from Judaism to Christianity and ethnic Jews who for one reason or another had not been indoctrinated into Judaism.

Jewish origin of Christianity

Jesus, his Twelve Apostles, the Elders, his family, and essentially all of his early followers were Jewish or Jewish Proselytes [1].

The term "Early Jewish Christians" is often used in discussing the Early History of Christianity, see also Early Christianity and History of early Christianity. Hence the 3,000 converts on Pentecost (Sivan 6), following the death and resurrection of Jesus (Nisan 14 or 15), described in Acts of the Apostles 2, were all Jews and Proselytes. Samaritans were not Jewish (Judean), but are still identified with the tribes of Israel and also numbered among the early followers, as is the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8)[2]. Traditionally the Roman Centurion Cornelius is considered the first Gentile convert[3], as recorded in Acts 10, albeit he too is a "God-fearer" proselyte who participated in a Jewish synagogue. The major division prior to that time was between Hellenistic and non-Hellenistic Jews or Koine Greek (Acts 6) and Aramaic (Acts 1:19) speakers. The conversion and acceptance of the Gentile Cornelius can be described in terms of the Judaic teaching which describes strangers becoming part of the community (Isaiah 56:3-7). Acts does not use the term "Jewish Christians", rather those led by James the Just, Simon Peter, and John the Apostle, the "Pillars of the Church", were called followers of "The Way".[4] Later groups, or perhaps the same group by different names[5], were the Ebionites and Elkasites.

The "Christian" appellation was first applied to the followers after Paul of Tarsus started preaching at Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). Paul made explicit in Galatians 1:7 that he did not discuss with the "Pillars of the Church" after he had received his revelation to be an apostle (1:15-16), that he saw no one except Cephas (Peter) and James, when he was in Jerusalem three years after the revelation (1:18-24) and implies he did not explain his gospel to them until 14 years later (2:1-2) in a subsequent trip to Jerusalem[5] The division between those who followed Mosaic law and were circumcised and those who were not circumcised was highlighted in his Epistle to the Galatians 2:7-9:

"On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised." (NRSV)

These terms (circumcised/uncircumcised) are generally interpreted to mean Jews and Greeks respectively, who were predominant in the region; however this is an oversimplification as 1st century Iudaea Province also had some Jews who no longer circumcised (sometimes called Hellenized Jews), and some Greeks (called Proselytes or Judaizers) and others such as Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Arabs who did. See also Abrahamic religion and Circumcision controversy in early Christianity#Jewish background.

Jesus is frequently called the "Nazarene" (Matthew 2:23; Mark 10:47; 14:67; 16:6; Luke 24:19; John 18:5; 18:7; 19:19; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 22:8. Named after him, the followers of Paul are the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5, Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 9:1).

The Council of Jerusalem, according to Acts 15, determined that circumcision was not required of Gentile converts, only avoidance of "pollution of idols, fornication, things strangled, and blood" (KJV, Acts 15:20). The basis for these prohibitions is unclear, Acts 15:21 states only: "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day", the implication being that they are based on the Law of Moses. Many, beginning with Augustine of Hippo[6] consider them to be based on the Noahide Laws, while some modern scholars[7] reject the connection to Noahide Law (Genesis 9) and instead see Lev 17-18 as the basis. Also unclear is whether this meant that this Law in some way applied to them or merely that the requirements were imposed to facilitate common participation in the Christian community by Gentiles who would be in constant relation with the Jewish Christians who would be constantly reminded of their obligation to follow the Law. See also Biblical law in Christianity and Expounding of the Law.

The early Jewish Christians included those who believed non-Jews must become Jews and adopt Jewish customs. They were derogatively called Judaizers, and even Paul used this term[8] against Jesus's student Peter in public according to Young's Literal Translation of Gal 2:14:

But when I saw that they are not walking uprightly to the truth of the good news, I said to Peter before all, `If thou, being a Jew, in the manner of the nations dost live, and not in the manner of the Jews, how the nations dost thou compel to Judaize?

However, Barnabas, Paul's partner up till then, sided with Peter (Gal 2:13, Acts 15:39-40). Catholic Encyclopedia: Judaizers: The Incident at Antioch claims: "St. Paul's account of the incident leaves no doubt that St. Peter saw the justice of the rebuke." however, L. Michael White's From Jesus to Christianity[9] claims: "The blowup with Peter was a total failure of political bravado, and Paul soon left Antioch as persona non grata, never again to return." See also Pauline Christianity. Scholar James D. G. Dunn, who coined the phrase New Perspective on Paul, has proposed that Peter was the bridge-man (i.e. the pontifex maximus) between the two other "prominent leading figures" of early Christianity: Paul and James the Just.[10]

Marcion in the 2nd century, called the "most dangerous" heretic, rejected the Twelve Apostles, and interpreted a Jesus who rejected the Law of Moses using 10 Pauline Epistles and the Gospel of Luke. For example, his version of Luke 23:2[11] : "We found this fellow [Jesus] perverting the nation and destroying the law and the prophets". Irenaeus in turn rejected Marcion and praised the Twelve Apostles in his Against Heresies 3.12.12:[12]

"...being brought over to the doctrine of Simon Magus, they have apostatized in their opinions from Him who is God, and imagined that they have themselves discovered more than the apostles, by finding out another god; and [maintained] that the apostles preached the Gospel still somewhat under the influence of Jewish opinions, but that they themselves are purer [in doctrine], and more intelligent, than the apostles."

According to Eusebius' History of the Church 4.5.3-4: the first 15 Bishops of Jerusalem were "of the circumcision". The Romans destroyed the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem in year 135 during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. However, that doesn't necessarily mean an end to Jewish Christianity, any more than Valerian's Massacre of 258, (when he killed all Christian bishops, presbyters, and deacons, including Pope Sixtus II and Antipope Novatian and Cyprian of Carthage), meant an end to Roman Christianity.

Circumcision controversy

A common interpretation of the circumcision controversy of the New Testament was that it was over the issue of whether Gentiles could enter the Church directly or ought to first convert to Judaism. However, the Halakha of Rabbinic Judaism was still under development at this time, as the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Jesus[13] notes: "Jesus, however, does not appear to have taken into account the fact that the Halakha was at this period just becoming crystallized, and that much variation existed as to its definite form; the disputes of the Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai were occurring about the time of his maturity." This controversy was fought largely between opposing groups of Christians who were themselves ethnically Jewish. According to this interpretation, those who felt that conversion to Judaism was a prerequisite for Church membership were eventually condemned by Paul as "Judaizing teachers".

The source of this interpretation is unknown; however, it appears related to Supersessionism or Hyperdispensationalism (see also New Perspective on Paul). In addition, modern Christians, such as Ethiopian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox still practice circumcision while not considering it a part of conversion to Judaism, nor do they consider themselves to be Jews or Jewish Christians. In 1st century Pharisaic Judaism there was controversy over the significance of circumcision, for example between Hillel the Elder and Shammai (see also Circumcision in the Bible #In rabbinic literature). Roman Catholicism condemned circumcision for its members in 1442, at the Council of Florence[14].

Surviving communities whose origins reflect both Judaism and early Christianity

The Nasrani or Syrian Malabar Nasrani community in Kerala, India is conscious of their Jewish origins. However, they have lost many of their Jewish traditions due to western influences. The Nasrani are also known as Syrian Christians or St. Thomas Christians. This is because they follow the traditions of Syriac Christianity and claim descent from the early converts by St. Thomas the Apostle. Today, they belong to various denominations of Christianity but they have kept their unique identity within each of these denominations. (Refer to St. Thomas Christians).

Two of the existing communities that still maintain their Jewish traditions are the Knananites and the Fallasha. The Knanaya, who are an endogamous sub-ethnic group among the Syrian Malabar Nasrani are the descendants of early Jewish Christian settlers who arrived in Kerala in A.D 345. Although affiliated with a variety of Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox denominations, they have remained a cohesive community, shunning intermarriage with outsiders (but not with fellow-Knanaya of other denominations). The Falasha of Ethiopia likewise reflect a Hebrew tradition that was outside the influence of much of the conflicts and conquests of the Hebrews of Israel and Judea.

Contemporary Jewish Christians and Messianic Jews

There are at least two varieties of syncretisms between Judaism and Christianity: syncretisms that emphasize Christianity (Jewish Christians) and syncretisms focusing on Judaism (Messianic Jews).

"Jewish Christians" is sometimes used as a contemporary term in respect of persons who are ethnically Jewish but who have become part of a "mainstream" Christian group which is not predominantly based on an appeal to Jewish ethnicity or the Law of Moses. They are mostly members of Protestant and Catholic congregations, usually are not strict about observing Kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) or the Sabbath, and are generally assimilated culturally into the Christian mainstream, although they retain a strong sense of their Jewish identity which they, like Messianic Jews, strongly desire to pass on to their children. In Israel, there is a growing population of Orthodox Christians who are of Jewish descent and conduct their worship mostly in Hebrew (the most prominent language in Israel, as well as the official language). The term could thus be used, for example, of Arnold Fruchtenbaum, the founder of Ariel Ministries[15]. Another group which could be described as Jewish Christians is "Jews for Jesus".

This term is used as a contrast to Messianic Jews, many of whom are ethnic Jews who have converted to a religion in which Christian belief (usually evangelical) is generally grafted onto Jewish ritual which would, to outsiders at least, typically resemble Judaism more than Christianity. Messianic Jews consider their primary identity to be "Jewish" and belief in Jesus to be the logical conclusion of their "Jewishness". They try to structure their worship according to Jewish norms, they circumcise their sons and (mostly) abstain from non-kosher foods, and (often) observe the Sabbath. Many (but by no means all) do not use the label "Christian" to describe themselves. The boundary between the two movements is blurred, but the differences between the two movements are such that it may not be fair to treat them as one (cf. Baptists and Methodists, for example). Additionally, there are a few organizations to support Messianic Jews who wish to remain faithful to Torah, most notably the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations and the Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council[16].


  1. Historical and Scriptural (NT) references to the original Jesus movement and its Jewish nature. "Original (Israelite) Christianity". 
  2. Ethiopian royalty considers itself of the Tribe of Judah, tracing its roots to Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon
  3. Catholic Encyclopedia: Cornelius: "The baptism of Cornelius is an important event in the history of the Early Church. The gates of the Church, within which thus far only those who were circumcised and observed the Law of Moses had been admitted, were now thrown open to the uncircumcised Gentiles without the obligation of submitting to the Jewish ceremonial laws."
  4. Acts 9:2, 18:25-26, 19:9-23, 24:14-22, see also Didache#The Two Ways
  5. 5.0 5.1 Jackson-McCabe, Matt (2007), "Jewish Christianity Reconsidered: Rethinking Ancient Groups and Texts"(Augsburg Publishers)
  6. Contra Faust, 32.13
  7. For example: Joseph Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries), Yale University Press (December 2, 1998), ISBN 0300139829, chapter V
  8. Strong's G2450 Ιουδαϊζω
  9. L. Michael White (2004). From Jesus to Christianity. Harper San Francisco. p. 170. ISBN ISBN 0-06-052655-6. 
  10. The Canon Debate, McDonald & Sanders editors, 2002, chapter 32, page 577, by James D. G. Dunn: "For Peter was probably in fact and effect the bridge-man (pontifex maximus!) who did more than any other to hold together the diversity of first-century Christianity. James the brother of Jesus and Paul, the two other most prominent leading figures in first-century Christianity, were too much identified with their respective "brands" of Christianity, at least in the eyes of Christians at the opposite ends of this particular spectrum. But Peter, as shown particularly by the Antioch episode in Gal 2, had both a care to hold firm to his Jewish heritage, which Paul lacked, and an openness to the demands of developing Christianity, which James lacked. John might have served as such a figure of the center holding together the extremes, but if the writings linked with his name are at all indicative of his own stance he was too much of an individualist to provide such a rallying point. Others could link the developing new religion more firmly to its founding events and to Jesus himself. But none of them, including the rest of the twelve, seem to have played any role of continuing significance for the whole sweep of Christianity—though James the brother of John might have proved an exception had he been spared." [Italics original]
  11. "Epiphanius: Panarion". Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  12. "ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus | Christian Classics Ethereal Library". 2005-07-13. Retrieved 2009-05-05. 
  13. "JESUS OF NAZARETH". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2008-11-03. 
  15. "About us — Brief history". Ariel Ministries. 
  16. "Who are we?". Messianic Jewish Rabbinical Council (MJRC). 

See also

External links